How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century | Erik Olin Wright

Summary of: How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century
By: Erik Olin Wright


Dive into the eye-opening book ‘How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century’ by Erik Olin Wright, which challenges our understanding of capitalism’s pros and cons. The book highlights the successes and the deeply rooted issues within capitalism – such as poverty, economic inequality, and environmental destruction – that continue to affect millions of lives. Gain a clearer understanding of the different perspectives on capitalism, including the classical Marxism viewpoint and the moral arguments against it. This summary will guide you through the complex, multifaceted aspects of anticapitalist politics, exploring the role of moral values and identities and introducing you to the concept of democratic socialism as a viable alternative.

The Downside of Capitalism

While capitalism has led to economic growth, technological innovation, and improved living standards, it also has its failures. Poverty and economic inequality persist, and the benefits of capitalism are largely enjoyed by the elite. Additionally, inequality leads to unfulfilling jobs and destroyed livelihoods, while environmental destruction threatens our planet. These problems call into question the benefits of capitalism, making it necessary to consider alternative economic systems.

Classical Marxism and Capitalism

Classical Marxism offers a different approach to anticapitalist criticism by focusing on workers’ class interests, instead of moral values.

Poverty and inequality are often considered social problems that arise from our capitalist economic system. However, classical Marxism offers a different approach to the opposition to capitalism, arguing that it should be based on workers’ class interests rather than moral values. Karl Marx and his followers believed that the capitalist world was divided into two groups: the capitalists who owned the means of production, and the workers who had to sell their labor for wages to make a living. Workers were the majority, but they did not have the means of production which made them powerless, while the capitalists accumulated the wealth generated by their labor.

Classical Marxism believed that the workers’ class interest is to end capitalism. In Marxist terminology, class interest means self-interest based on class affiliation to achieve class consciousness. According to classical Marxism, moral arguments against capitalism were irrelevant since they would only distract from the fundamental issue. They believed that workers needed to become aware of their class interest and achieve class consciousness. Workers would then rise to overthrow the capitalist system purely based on self-interest.

Anticapitalism is not a new concept. It has been around since the nineteenth century, and classical Marxism was one of the earliest schools of thought that opposed capitalism. Classical Marxism offers a different critique of capitalism that is based on workers’ class interests rather than moral values. However, this approach may not be relevant in the modern era. The world has become a more complex place, and new challenges need to be considered when evaluating the relevance of anticapitalist criticism.

Anticapitalism: Beyond Class Interests

In contemporary capitalism, the class structure is fragmented, and most people have contradictory class interests. As a result, appealing to their class interests alone is not enough to promote the cause of anticapitalism. For instance, a highly educated professional may enjoy a good salary but long working hours, thus experiencing a mixture of class interests for and against capitalism. Therefore, to convince people to get off the fence, anticapitalists need to find something else to motivate them. It means that anticapitalists cannot rely solely on appealing to class interests to be successful in the current era.

The Role of Values and Identities in Political Activism

People are motivated by their moral values and identities in addition to economic self-interests. Anticapitalists must consider these factors in their activism, as individuals have multifaceted identities that include various social justice issues beyond economic justice.

Morality & Intersectionality in Anticapitalism

The politics of anticapitalism go beyond class interests and involve values, identities, and their intersections. People’s overall self-interests are multifaceted, and so is the contemporary capitalist class structure. To make this complexity more manageable, we can appeal to moral values, connect anticapitalist politics to people’s diverse identities, and uncover value-based alignments and intersections. This approach helps link anticapitalist politics with antiracist politics and underscores the importance of clarity about our values.

Anticapitalist politics are not just about class interests; they involve values, identities, and their intersections. Class interests do not even capture the full extent of people’s overall self-interests. People have all sorts of other interests related to their race, gender, and other aspects of their identities. Contemporary capitalism has a fragmented class structure since class interests themselves are multifaceted and contradictory. The complications that arise from interests, values, identities, and class are the realities of people’s complexity and the world we live in. However, appealing to moral values helps to make progressive politics more accessible and inclusive.

A Black person living in the US, for example, has many identities aside from being Black, such as a jazz lover, book reader, father, New Yorker, and more. Different aspects of his identity come to the fore in particular contexts. However, his identity as a Black person comes first and foremost due to the societal context of racism, placing a greater emphasis on his interests in racial justice issues than his interests in economic issues as a worker. Racial and economic justice issues can often intersect, such as Black people facing discrimination in the workplace. By recognizing these intersections, antiracist and anticapitalist politics can be linked together. Bedrock values that emphasize equality and fairness and their role in anticapitalist politics are critical.

In contemporary society, the politics of anticapitalism must be complicated, but not overwhelmingly so. By appealing to moral values, anticapitalist politics can connect to the diverse identities and interests of people. Value-based alignments and intersections create links between antiracist politics and anticapitalist struggles. Clarity about our values is necessary to carry out this crucial task for anticapitalists today.

The Moral Bedrock of Anticapitalism

In this book, the author argues that if we want to mount a moral argument against capitalism, we need a normative foundation based on core values to judge the current system and its possible alternatives. The author proposes three pairs of values: equality/fairness, democracy/freedom, and community/solidarity, which together form the moral bedrock for anticapitalist politics. The value of equality is defined as having equal access to material and social means necessary to live a flourishing life. The value of democracy is having equal access to participate in decisions that affect our lives, including decisions about freedom. The value of community is cooperation for mutual well-being, while solidarity is when that sense of togetherness is channeled into a shared struggle for a common cause. The author emphasizes that relying only on factual claims against capitalism is not enough, and it is vital to give a reason why poverty and other related social problems are morally unacceptable.

Why Capitalism Fails Our Moral Values

Capitalism contradicts the values of community/solidarity, equality/fairness, and democracy/freedom. Despite its encouragement of individualism and competition, capitalism divides people and perpetuates economic inequality, poverty, and limited access to fulfilling work. While the wealthy influence politicians and maintain control over workplaces, ordinary people are left with less democracy and a smaller say in decisions that affect their lives. In essence, capitalism fails to live up to our moral values and leaves much room for improvement.

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